Of Serbs, Salvation, and Sunburns

“The Council hopes that the barrier dividing the Eastern Church and Western Church will be removed, and that at last there may be but the one dwelling, firmly established on Christ Jesus, the cornerstone, who will make both one.” —Unitatis Redintegratio

The fresco of young Saint Sava, King`s Church in Studenica, Serbia
The fresco of young Saint Sava, King`s Church in Studenica, Serbia (photo: Register Files)

We have almost everything in common.
Pope St. John Paul II

It was a full summer weekend. A wedding on Friday, Lake Michigan and the beach on Saturday, and then off to see the South Bend Cubs take on the Bowling Green Hot Rods on Sunday afternoon.

As we were making our way to Four Winds Field, conversation in the van gravitated to our beach adventure the previous day. We talked about the ungainly crowds, the hot sand, the frigid lake water, and the ride home, which included a detour past Sts. Peter and Paul, South Bend’s Serbian Orthodox church.

“Serb Fest was in full swing,” I told my wife, who hadn’t made the trip to the beach. “The cars were lined up down the street. Remember when we went to Serb Fest that one time?”

Katharine, my 11-year-old piped up. “What’s Serb Fest?”

“It’s like our parish picnic and fun fair,” I replied, “but it’s for the Serbian Orthodox parish, so they just call it ‘Serb Fest.’”

I went on to a brief fatherly discourse about the Orthodox communion. Kath hadn’t asked, mind you, but I figured I owed her some kind of explanation. “They have all the sacraments that we do,” said I, “and their priests are like our priests.” In the interest of making it concrete for her, I added that I make the sign of the cross whenever I drive by an Orthodox church because they have the Blessed Sacrament reserved there just like in our own churches.

“Really, the biggest difference between us is that Orthodox Christians don’t accept the authority of the Pope,” I summarized. “There’s more to it than that, but pretty much that’s the biggest thing.”

There – that ought to do it. It wasn’t a perfect description of Orthodoxy by any stretch, but it seemed consistent with what I recalled was the Council’s concise treatment in Lumen Gentium (§15). Besides, I was trying to boil down an extremely complicated ecclesial distinction to the nitty-gritty for my grade-schooler while behind the wheel. I cut myself some slack.

But Kath had a follow-up question. “If I was one of them,” she asked innocently, “like, just who I am now, but one of them, would I go to heaven?”

Now there’s a loaded question – almost hydra-like in its suppositions and offshoots, corollaries and requisite hedging. Kath has been known to bluntly pose such discomfiting questions in the past. Out of the blue, and with total innocence, she’ll put me on the spot and open up yawning chasms of expectation with regards to parental wisdom and delicacy. Of course, I’m delighted she has such an inquiring mind, and I’m equally delighted that she feels so free to give voice to her thoughts. Still – wow. Her question had all kinds of complex soteriological and ecumenical angles. As in similar situations, and at the risk of failing miserably, I felt compelled to risk a response.

“Let’s put it this way,” I said after a rich pause. “The Orthodox have all the same sacramental gifts and helps that Jesus intended us to have to help us get to heaven. If you were Orthodox, and you cooperated with those gifts and helps – just like we’re supposed to cooperate with the gifts and helps we have as Catholics – then, yes, you’d get to heaven as an Orthodox Christian.”

Silence. Did she suspect I was bracketing all kinds of controversy regarding conscience and free will? Did she have any inkling that I was leapfrogging entire centuries of ecclesial and cultural conflict, not to mention the filioque? And what about that special category of Eastern Rite Catholics – don’t they deserve some kind of mention, even for an 11-year-old?

Enough – Kath was ready to move on. “I’ve got a sunburn on my nose from the beach,” she noted, “right below where my sunglasses sit.” Reprieve! I moved on as well. We’ll tackle my discursive lacunae some other day.

Maybe next summer.